This article is written in response to Matt Young’s “How to Evolve Specified Complexity by Natural Means” which appeared in Metanexus.
The mathematician George Polya used to quip that if you can’t solve a problem, find an easier problem and solve it. Matt Young seems to have taken Polya’s advice to heart. Young has taken Shannon’s tried-and-true theory of information and shoehorned my notion of specified complexity into it. The shoe no longer fits, and so there must be something wrong with specified complexity and the implications I draw from it — notably the law of conservation of information.
Young’s basic argument is that information” conceived as improbability is subject to Shannon’s theory and the 2nd law of thermodynamics, but that information conceived as the specification of possibilities is not and actually runs counter to the first construal of information. Thus my entire work on intelligent design is supposed to devolve to an equivocation over the use of the term “information.”
There is no equivocation in my work over information. What I do is define a type of information — specified complexity — that enriches Shannon information but at the same is not reducible to it. What gives specified complexity its traction in detecting design is a coincidence of two things: (1) an event that under a chance hypothesis has small probability and therefore high information content in the first of Young’s senses; and (2) a pattern that is objectively given and complexity-theoretically tractable, and yet matches the event.
It’s that coincidence that makes the design inference work. It is the same coincidence that makes ETI detection work. And it is the same coincidence that makes Fisher’s theory of significance testing work (in which events — i.e., the high information carriers — coincide with rejection regions — i.e., the objectively given patterns).
Even a cursory reading of my Cambridge monograph The Design Inference would have made this clear. But instead, Young cites semi-popular work of mine directed toward a theological audience (in particular, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology). Young as a physicist claiming expertise in information theory has no excuse for not engaging my technical work (no mention of The Design Inference in his article).
Even so, let me offer one concession. Although I developed my theoretical apparatus for design-detection at length in The Design Inference, I did not there develop the information-theoretic connections. Moreover, until No Free Lunch (2002), my treatment of the information-theoretic connections was semi-popular. Charitable readers with the requisite technical background were thus able to fill in the details and see the merit of my previous information-theoretic work. Uncharitable readers like Young, on the other hand, have been eager to attribute confusion on my part.
Young seems especially to be taking his cues from Victor Stenger, Mark Perakh, and others who claim that I’m all mixed up about information theory. Perhaps I am. But let’s make a deal. Start to engage my technical work on the information-theoretic underpinnings of intelligent design by reading and citing The Design Inference and especially chs. 2-4 of my newest book No Free Lunch. Having engaged that material, give me your best shot.